Roleplaying Lessons From The Princess Bride
This article was written by Matthew Ipock, for RoleplayingTips (see the original here), I thought it was useful to look at an iconic film & think about how it can inspire your roleplay.
The Princess Bride has become a great romantic-comedy cult classic. This is because the film has all the ingredients of a great movie: action, comedy, memorable characters and dialogue, and “true love.”
Because the movie has these essential ingredients, The Princess Bride can also serve as a wonderful tutorial on how to run a roleplaying game that includes humor, and as a treasure trove of basic roleplaying tips for almost any game your group plays.
The Princess Bride offers excellent lessons on how to include humor in roleplaying, without having to resort to horrible puns that gain only nervous chuckles and confused looks (such as the old “your character kicks the bucket” joke).
For example, look at the names used in The Princess Bride. The large man’s name is Fezzik, playing off of the term ‘physique’ because he is big and strong. The lead heroine’s name is Buttercup, not necessarily funny, but not serious. Then, of course, there is Prince Humperdinck, Miracle Max, and a fellow referred to as simply ‘The Albino’.
None of these individuals can be taken seriously because of their name, and using names like this in your campaign will almost certainly bring constant grins to your players’ faces.
Of course, character names aren’t the only things that can be humorous. Monster names can cause grins, too. (Rodents of Unusual Size ring a bell?)
Personality and Speech
Another example of humor is the characters’ personalities and speech patterns. We have a farm boy named Westley who starts the movie out saying nothing but “as you wish” to conceal his real love for the lead heroine.
Then there is a six-fingered count who relishes pain dished out in his secret torture chamber. Let’s not forget the priest who talks with an odd accent that cannot, for some reason, include the letters ‘R’ or ‘L’.
The most memorable is the Spaniard who seeks only to avenge his father’s death, and who has an entire statement ready for the one who killed him.
If you include off-the-wall characters such as these in your campaign, your players will be beating down your door from week to week, sitting on the edge of their seat to see who they will meet next.
You can also inject humor through simple dialogue between the characters and NPCs. We will mention again the way Inigo repeats his “You Killed My Father” speech throughout the film. Vizzini uses the term ‘inconceivable’ numerous times, and it is pointed out he might not be using the term correctly in some situations.
Westley suggests people think the Fire Swamp is not survivable only because “no one has done it before.” Tiny quips like this in NPC conversation will strike your players as masterful game mastering, and will add great enjoyment to your game.
The Princess Bride is full of action – sword fighting, wrestling, chases – and any self-respecting roleplaying game should be, as well. Typically, however, most action during a gaming session turns into nothing but rolling a die and moving a tiny plastic figurine around on a battle mat. This is just wrong.
One way to boost your action is to have your players plan out their actions a few turns at a time, make the needed rolls, and then use your storytelling ability to explain what happened in those turns. Make the fighting sound as exciting as possible.
Use lots of detail – clanging of swords, shuffling of stones under the characters’ feet, grunts and moans of the dying. If one of your players uses a monk-type character, make sure you know the martial-arts moves the monk knows and describe every leap, punch, and kick.
Add realism, as well. Do your homework and add in real terms for the actions and descriptions. For example, they used real terms for the sword fighting techniques and styles. Little details help players visualize what you are describing, whether it’s a gun, a vehicle, or an animal breed.
Cater to Different Abilities
One of the mainstays of roleplaying games is a group of characters working together for a common goal. Each of these characters typically has their own place in the group, their own abilities that contribute to the success of the adventure or mission.
The Princess Bride emphasizes this perfectly. Inigo is the sword fighter. Fezzik is the muscle, the strong man, the wrestler. Vizzini is the brains. Miracle Max (though not really part of a group) is the mystical miracle-maker.
Ensuring your group includes different ability types, though, is not enough. Look at how The Princess Bride is able to highlight each character’s ability.
Inigo is left alone on the cliff top to fight Westley with the sword. Fezzik is left in the rocky outcropping to wrestle Westley, again, on his own. Westley meets Vizzini to have a battle of the wit, just the two of them.
If you want your players coming back, you will need to highlight their characters’ abilities in much the same way. If your group includes a priest or cleric, make sure to offer plenty of chances for healing (of many different types) or turning undead. If you have a wizard, be sure to include something only he can do (and keep in mind what spells he knows).
If a player wishes to play a bard, why not allow the group to spend the night at a well-known inn or tavern, and why not have a flustered innkeeper who needs a replacement story teller? Not every talent needs to be used in a combat situation.
Cater to Different Motivations
Characters are not only the sum of their abilities. Good player characters should have some sort of motivation, even a small one, and a good GM should cater to those motivations.
Inigo is motivated by his need for revenge against his father’s killer. Vizzini is motivated by his greed for money. Westley is motivated by true love. Even the NPC, Miracle Max, has his personal motivation to see Prince Humperdinck suffer.
Cater to character motivation with flair. If a character has the simple motivation of gathering great wealth, you could put them on the path to mounds of gold (anyone want to raid a dragon lair?). Let’s be a bit more creative, though. Perhaps the character finds gems, and golden mirrors, and hair combs. Then you have something to describe with greater detail, and the player can have more fun roleplaying his character while haggling over the sell price when he sells the treasures he finds. An even greater end to finding such treasures would be if the character uses these things to furnish his home.
Perhaps the character wishes to avenge the deaths of his parents at the hands of goblins. An easy way to do this is offer the character plenty of goblins and orcs to kill. Why not leave a breadcrumb trail to the actual goblin or orc that killed the character’s parents?
Allow the character and his companions to track down the creature, spending a few weeks hunting it, meeting a variety of NPCs along the way, and perhaps helping a few downtrodden when they can. Turn a mundane motivation into the plot for an entire campaign that shows your entire game world to the players.
How to Run the NPCs
The Princess Bride relies on strong tags for consistent NPC behavior and personality. Here are some GM notes for running them:
- Prince: Arrogant, cares little for others, takes what he wants when he wants it, seems to be full of hot air.
- Count: Deceitful, conniving, just plain mean.
- Inigo: Not really “evil”, just fell in with bad people. Has a great joy for life and for what he does. Fair and honorable.
Draw Players into Roleplaying by Roleplaying NPC’s Who Are Their Friends
Even small lines or pieces of conversation help. This doesn’t take up a lot of time, but encourages players to interact with NPC’s and each other.
NPC as Group Leader? It’s Possible
Vizzini leads, but leaves everything to everyone else. He just tells them what to do and where to meet afterward. Sometimes he offers suggestions on how to do it, but generally leaves it up to the characters.
Do your homework and add in real terms for the actions and descriptions. For example, they used real terms for the sword fighting techniques and styles. Little details help the players visualize what you are describing, whether it’s a gun, a vehicle, or an animal breed.
Leave the Romance Out of It
Rather than roleplay the romance and kissy stuff, they left it all off camera. It was sufficient to say that Westley and Buttercup were in love.